Monday, February 27, 2012

Politics: Is 50% enough?

I've been sitting on this post for a while and just decided to bite the bullet and hit 'Publish'.

Typically, when people vote on something, it's agreed that majority rules. Put another way, whatever opinion has more than 50% support wins. Recently I've been wondering if that's good enough. Should a simple majority rule? Or should more things require a supermajority?

A supermajority is when more than 50% support is required to make something pass. For example, in order to remove the President of the United States from office, the House of Representatives must pass a simple majority to impeach the president and then the Senate must pass a 2/3 majority (67 of the total 100 available votes). A three-fifths supermajority is required to pass a bill with no further debate (i.e. break a filibuster) and either chamber of Congress can forcibly remove one of its members with a two-thirds supermarjority. This was last done in 2002. A two-thirds supermajority can also overturn a presidential veto.

When is a majority necessary?
A simple majority is necessary when some sort of positive resolution must be made. For example, a simple majority is necessary for all elections, because somebody must hold the office. Furthermore, say you were a member of a group of travelers going through the forest and you came upon a fork in the road. The group must come to a decision about with path to take, if you required a supermajority consensus, then you may not be able to come to a resolution.

However, most bills don't require an immediate resolution. They aren't "We will do A, and if we don't decide to do A then we must decide to do B." If A doesn't pass, A can be voted on again at a later date.

What's wrong with a simple majority?
As it stands, a simple majority is enough to strip people of their rights. This allows just slightly more than half of a group to restrict the rights of the other half. Personally, that doesn't seem right to me. Is 50% strong enough to force a piece of legislation on people when so many disagree with it? As it stands in the United States, the majority rules and the minority suffers.

The other problem with a simple majority system is how it plays in with our system of voting and our party system. As I've noted before, our method of voting and how it interacts with our party system and the public creates a situation where party representation in Congress is A) always very close to 50% and B) bounces across that line regularly. This has the effect of the dominant party changing hands frequently and then using their newfound power to undo previously passed legislation. One party bullies their way into passing legislation, and then the next time congress changes hands it can easily get repealed.

Could we force supermajority votes on certain topics?
In New York, most tax increases requires a 60% supermajority vote. So this is certainly something that could be done; the main question is what would we want a supermajority vote for and how enforceable that is.

Personally, I would like to see a supermajority vote on any legislation that would restrict the rights of any person. Legislation that opens up rights that were previously closed to a group of people would still require the standard 50%. I don't know what kind of supermajority I would like to enforce on it, but I know I would like one. In a country that is founded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you need to be very strong in your convictions before you restrict the rights of any person.

One thing I wonder is if a slight supermajority, say 55%, may just be good to require for all legislation. The immediate thought that I have is that no legislation would ever pass; the opposing party could just block everything. But that's thinking too simply, I feel. The real question is, what changes would be required of congresspersons if such a thing were true?

No legislation could pass unless it had support, at least some, from both sides. Legislation would be less controversial, less contentious. It would force congress to work together, to give things up on both sides. I think this might lessen tensions in Congress, and make the two parties less violently opposed to each other.

There is a potential downside, however. If you consider that congress/law is on a path towards what's best (even if it is slow, often), then this could be seen as a impediment to progress. If the overall trend is towards a better United States, then this would slow that progress if it were implemented across the board. Sure, it would slow down/stop legislation that would take us backwards, but it would also slow/stop legislation that would push us forward. So implementing this across the board would be a bad idea.

Another problem with this would be our current electoral system. As I've mentioned before, our system for electing representative drives congress towards ~50% representation. This would give the minority party the power to veto anything they want. Quite frankly, my hope for cooperation from both sides seems pretty unlikely, given how much like children they act. So a blanket 55% majority needed would definitely not work with our current political system. If a legislature were not composed of two parties embroiled in such a close battle for the majority constantly, if there were, say, more than two viable parties, then there is definitely a potential for this to be a meaningful way to operate.

Supermajorities are a very interesting thing to consider. If I were creating a new country from scratch I would strongly consider an expanded role for them in legislature. However, they don't fit within our current system due to our tense 50-50 party politics. It's a shame really, because I feel we deserve better. Perhaps in a country with different system for presidential and legislative elections, this would be a much better idea.